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Good Questions, Great Answers

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 30, 2009

Suppose you were to make a list of the most important questions which haunt the intersection between the Catholic Faith and modern culture. What would your list include? Where would you look for answers? No, this time I am not talking about But I do think this is a worthwhile experiment, and I also think I can tell you where to go for answers or, at the very least, I can give you an easy way to understand more perfectly what your questions imply, and what issues they involve. Let's start with Faith and work out toward culture, in the tradition of this website.


The first great question might be deceptively simple. What is Revelation? The easy answer is that it is God telling us, about Himself, things that we could never know by reason. But is it really God “telling”, or is it God “acting”? Is Revelation primarily a series of highly distilled propositions to be received as intellectual truths? Or is it primarily an intervention in our history to be experienced as reality? There was a tendency in the Church from at least the eighteenth century on, under the influence of the prejudices of the so-called Age of Reason, to codify Revelation in a series of propositions that were to be learned and believed, a series of propositions which cohered rationally, and whose logical consistency could be demonstrated, a series of propositions which was largely separate from and perhaps superimposed on our own daily experience of the world.

Was there any flaw in this approach? Did it perhaps suggest that Revelation could win the day primarily through argument, or that it could be grafted intellectually onto any culture? Certainly some complained that we had lost sight of the idea of salvation as history, of Revelation as an experience of God’s saving power operating through time, of the importance of living within a Christian tradition as an experiential pre-condition for fully understanding the Christian message. Others pointed out instinctively that Christianity has something to say to the heart as well as the head. There are keen insights here, but if we emphasize experience too much, we might run the risk of failing to distance ourselves mentally from our own experiences and our own traditions in order to receive them critically, and to purify them as needed. How do we weave these threads into a whole cloth?

The Church

If the Church is the primary transmitter and the guarantor of Revelation, how does she operate and how is she structured? Some in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries noted that the Church seemed to be losing her soul, reducing herself to a bureaucratic clericalism which left too little room for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The exact same charge is made, mutatis mutandis, against the diocesan and national structures produced in the era of “reform” since Vatican II. To what degree does the local bishop orchestrate a great symphony of Christian gifts and Christian witness, and to what degree does he preside over a corporate bureaucracy, running programs rather than leading persons, always cautious, always insulated? The same question has been raised about the Vatican.

Pius XII began an attack on the bureaucratic deficiencies of the twentieth-century Church in his encyclical Mystici Corporis, where he emphasized the nature of the Church as the mystical body of Christ. But in this context, is the universal Church simply the sum of her particular parts, each inspired individually by Christ? Should she be organized on a conciliar model and defined theologically by the title of the influential academic journal Concilium? Or is she essentially a communion whose totality is an essential feature of every local church, giving each church a universal dimension from the first? Are Christ, his vicar and the sacred hierarchy already implied in each local church? Indeed, a rival theological journal, Communio, stands for this view. We might pause here to touch also on the controversy over the word “subsists” in Vatican II’s statement that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. Does this mean that the Church can be found outside the Catholic Church, or does it mean that wherever any relationship with Christ exists, the one Catholic Church is implicitly included?


I’ve commented occasionally that there was a tendency to reduce the role of the layman to that of spectator as the Tridentine Rite was carried forward into the modern period. Others point to the opportunity provided by the rite for silent contemplation of the action of the liturgy. The question, I suppose, can only be settled in the mind of each individual at Mass, but the Church was already working on the problem under Pius XII and it was a major concern at the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, there are a whole host of other current questions about what the liturgy is supposed to be. Is it to be ordered toward the worship of God or the education of the community, or both? Should it be utilitarian, in the sense that the words and the music ought to speak plainly to our contemporaries in idioms they understand? Or should the liturgy be cosmic and eschatological, demanding beauty and transcendence? Or is just about anything acceptable as long as a valid consecration takes place?

Some have argued persuasively that liturgy bears within it the Tradition of the Church as well as various human traditions, and it must therefore have an element of permanence. Others respond that to be truly effective it must be redesigned for each new cultural sensibility. In what sense, then, can the liturgy undergo growth and development? Should this be an organic process or a rational reconstruction? And then there are the many particular controversies we have today: Should the priest offer Mass facing the people or not? Should the words of consecration emphasize that Christ died for all or that his death is efficacious only for some (the pro multis controversy)? Why are there two ways to receive communion? Is kneeling an obsequious oriental departure from the true meaning of our relationship with God? Liturgical dance, the sign of peace, inter-communion: What about each of these?


By now you may be screaming to be let off the carousel, but let’s persevere, because all this is leading someplace rather special. In early modern European history—with its doctrinal controversies, its religious wars, its discovery of non-Christian cultures, the rise of skepticism and a corresponding emphasis on a rational approach to governing human behavior—a strain began growing within Catholic thought which, by the eighteenth century at least, had tended to turn Christian moral life into a series of moral duties, a kind of Christian pharisaism. Some Catholics, probably a great many Catholics, tended to live the Christian life prescriptively, rather than as a response to God out of love. It would seem clear that this was at least largely the case in the first half of the twentieth century, because as soon as the theology of hell and Divine punishment was weakened in the second half of that century, a whole set of Christian behaviors vanished almost overnight. No fear, no motivation.

Since that time, our culture has further reduced the concept of morality to human well-being, and the concept of love to eros, or passionate pleasure. A Deist God, a God whom no one can imagine being offended by anything we can do, presides over a naturally free humanity. But where has real love gone? Did the Church’s own theological shortcomings contribute to this sterility? The transcendentals of truth, goodness and beauty come once again to mind. Is it enough to concentrate on the good, or even on the true and the good together? Or does beauty provide an indispensable motive or attraction to love? Consider the problems that hinge on these questions. Perhaps the failure to couple eros with agape (selfless, sacrificial pursuit of another’s good) has resulted in the death of eros itself, the banality of sex, the withering of relationships between men and women. Perhaps too an incorrect view of the sources and motives of morality makes it impossible for us to reconcile conscience and authority.

The Second Vatican Council

In the midst of all these issues, which were present before but have become far more clear and obvious since, the Church convened the Second Vatican Council to address herself to the modern world. The Council called for aggiornamento, or a renewal which takes into account the conditions in which the Church finds herself today. But what is the meaning of this renewal? How is the Council to be interpreted? In fact, at the Synod of Bishops in 1985, the primary focus was on figuring out what may have gone wrong in responding to the Council and how the Council needed to be understood if renewal were to be put back on course. (Interestingly, immediately following the Synod, Trinity Communications commissioned and published a book by Richard Cowden-Guido perceptively entitled John Paul II and the Battle for Vatican II.)

Many leading theologians, led by the brilliant Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx, favored a new kind of accommodationism. The key to engaging the modern world, they argued, is to recognize its humanism, its quest for goodness, and to recast the Christian message in terms consonant with modern culture. Critics charged that insofar as this program has been followed, it has first made Christianity anonymous and finally robbed it of Christ altogether. In contrast, theologians such as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar favored a new anthropology. Rather than separating faith from reason in a sort of dualism, and striving always for popular slogans which only loosely expressed some of the values of Faith, these thinkers insisted that Christ was the new Adam, the archetype of man, his pattern and his goal, without whom man could not be fully human. But was this insight doomed to the vacuous evolution of man into God in an Omega Point, as in the once wildly popular musings of Teilhard de Chardin? Or was there in this new anthropology a radical reunion with the Risen Christ?

The Modern World

The Church’s approach to the modern world must presumably be conditioned not only by what she wishes to achieve, but by whether or not modern culture is capable of being directly employed to achieve it. Those who have sought a new synthesis with modern thought, much as Aquinas sought a synthesis with Aristotle, must by now wonder whether modernity is internally consistent enough for any sort of Christian synthesis to be possible. Modern thought has largely co-opted Christian terms for its own purposes over the past five hundred years. Is it possible to take those terms back and invest them again with Christian content if a modern secularist will still respond to them in primarily a secular way? It has been pointed out that modern culture consists in large part of formerly Christian institutions which are in varying stages of transformation and dissolution, depending on how much of their Christian meaning has been progressively evacuated. Perhaps, therefore, even within itself, modern culture is incoherent.

And what are we to do with the great divide between the Christian and the Secular shaped in large part by Protestantism. By severing faith and reason, and insisting on faith alone, Martin Luther seized one half of a unity bequeathed to us by the Greco-Christian tradition and set it in opposition to the other half, namely reason. Perhaps it is not surprising that many began to suspect that Christianity was irrational. Perhaps secularism, turning first to reason and then to rationalization, was an almost inevitable result. Do we find here the seeds of the secular state and the subsequent marginalization of Christianity? Where do Original Sin and grace fit into this bifurcated picture? Must we make a choice between faith OR reason, creation OR nature? Is the world primarily a field for endless human technocratic activity, or does it point to something outside itself? Perhaps it was made for rest, leisure and worship.


If your poor head hurts, you are not alone. But I did promise a happy ending. Let me give you exactly one guess as to which great modern thinker has raised and persuasively answered nearly all of these questions. Which thinker understands the flaws in the way the Church has too often approached these questions in the past, both before and after the Council? Which thinker has a sufficient understanding of God, Christ, the Church, man and the world, so that he is able to propose solutions which make Our Lord more present to the world rather than less? Which thinker is able to articulate his profound insights in a clear and even luminous way, charting a course for true Catholic renewal which will reveal the Church to be what she truly is and help the world to become what it is to be? Which thinker has a deep enough personal faith and holiness, evident in his writings, to inspire a new generation to follow his lead? Which thinker is also in the best possible position to influence others?

If you answered “Joseph Ratzinger”, you got it in one.

This has never been more evident than in a new and most remarkable book by a professor at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne named Tracey Rowland. Her book, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, is just out this Fall from Oxford University Press. What George Weigel did for the life of John Paul II in his definitive (and mammoth) biography, Tracey Rowland has done for the theology of Pope Benedict XVI—and she has done it in the blessedly short space of fewer than 200 pages. I have never read an author who identifies and explains all the essential questions with such intelligence and clarity, nor one who so thoroughly understands the roots and progression of Joseph Ratzinger’s thought, the comprehensiveness of his theology, the exquisite balance and precision of his solutions.

Ratzinger's Faith

What is most extraordinary about Rowland’s treatment is that she accomplishes two critical tasks at the same time. For in explaining how the theology of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI fits into all these questions she also enables the reader to understand the questions, and everything they involve, far better than before. Rowland succeeds in understanding Revelation, the Church, the Liturgy, morality, the Second Vatican Council and the modern world through the eyes of the Pope as theologian. This is a tribute to her own significant intellect, her scholarly acumen, and her ability to think with the Church, as well as her deep and sympathetic study of Ratzinger’s countless writings. I suppose it is fair to say that the book will not appeal to those unsuited in one way or another to a fairly heady intellectual analysis, but the reader does not need to be any kind of professional intellectual or academic specialist to understand it. Rowland’s prose is as readable as her grasp of the key ideas is profound.

This book is a clear case of a master teacher explaining the work of a Master teacher who serves the Master Teacher. It should be the number one choice of anyone who wants to understand more fully the contemporary predicament in which both Church and culture find themselves, while at the same time discovering the leading ideas of the one man who has real solutions to propose without deference to party or prejudice. Along the way it also enables the reader to perceive how an authentic Catholic culture must unfold, a benefit of no small interest here at It is not too much to say that if you haven’t read this book—as the best way to understand the thought of Pope Benedict XVI—you are doomed to have significant gaps in your own analysis of how things are. So if you can read only one more intellectually serious book this year, read Tracey Rowland’s Ratzinger’s Faith.

[Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) Paper. 227pp. (Benefit by ordering from Amazon cover link at left.)]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Nov. 01, 2009 12:50 AM ET USA

    Great summary of some of the major issues! Can't wait to read the book!

  • Posted by: peggyann - Oct. 31, 2009 12:00 PM ET USA

    You've certainly piqued my curiosity and interest. Can I read it again and again 'til I do understand it? I love this Pope as much as I did his predecessor, who was no intellectual pygmy either. Thanks for your review.